Rather than take the risk of competing with Taito’s mega-moneymaker, several companies instead tried to imitate the game’s basic appeal.
Most of these attempts met with limited success, but over at Namco, programmers Hurashi Nagumo and Akira Takundai came up with a twist . . .
Galaxian’s innovation wasn’t exactly earth-shattering, but it was more than enough to set the game apart from the pack of clones. The aliens still lined up in orderly rows, but they broke ranks to swoop down and attack your fighter, often led by a commanding flagship.
Like Space Invaders, you moved your defender side-to-side, avoiding enemy fire and fighting back with your own blaster.
As one convoy of aliens was destroyed, another would rise to take its place, and so the game went until you made one too many wrong moves.
Aside from the dive-bombing aliens, part of Galaxian’s success was due to its pioneering use of colour, the first game presented in full RGB glory instead of a coloured plastic overlay. The hope was to create a game eye-catching enough to draw in players and challenging enough to keep them coming back for more.
The strategy worked, as Galaxian became one of the biggest hits of 1979, released in the USA by Bally/Midway.
Namco followed up the game’s success in 1981 with Galaga, which became an even bigger success than its predecessor.
The basics of gameplay remained the same, but a few added features turned Galaga into a whole new experience. The aliens now looked more insect-like, flying onto the screen at the beginning of each stage before lining up in their usual formations. As you passed through waves of alien fighters, special bonus rounds would pop up regularly, offering chances to score extra points without the fear of getting dive bombed.
The sound effects and graphics were also improved, but none of these changes were what kept gamers flocking to Galaga machines for years to come.
Galaga’s real hook was the infamous “tractor beam,” a power possessed only by the Boss Galagas, the winged beasties at the top of the screen.
At random intervals, the Boss stopped in mid-dive and fired off its tractor beam, sucking your ship up into the alien fleet. But that was only half the gimmick. As long as you had another fighter left in your stable, you had a chance to get that fighter back.
When your captured ship made its next dive, if you shot the Boss that captured it, the stolen vessel would descend to join your current ship, giving you double the firepower.
It was a brilliant move, one that actually encouraged players to waste their lives in the hopes of expanding their power.
Galaxian may have been first, but Galaga was the title that came to define the series.
Namco produced another follow-up in 1984, titled Gaplus (short for “Galaga Plus”), which had the bad fortune of arriving at the low point of the mid-80’s video game crash.
Despite the game’s new features – along with other power-ups, your ship now controlled the tractor beam, allowing you to siphon off attackers to join your fleet – the game did little to change the course of the arcade’s downward spiral.
Bally retitled the game Galaga 3 in hopes that more players would give it a chance, but few did.
After the arcade’s recovery, Namco tried for another follow-up with Galaga ‘88, which featured the latest graphics and sound, new threats, new powers, and fearsome boss enemies.
But once again, the remake was unable to outshine Galaga, which was still a fairly popular draw at several arcades.
Galaxian³, the latest addition to the family, was also the least like its predecessors. Designed as a special attraction for a few major locations, the game featured two to three enormous projection screens, allowing up to six players to blast away at the enemy.
The computer piloted the ship, flying at a breakneck speed through alien armadas and bases, while the players controlled the ship’s gun stations. Galaxian³ was a one-of-a-kind experience for those lucky enough to play, but the expensive system kept the game from being the kind of widespread hit that Galaxian and Galaga were.
After more than two decades in play, the Galaxian family has proven its place in the pantheon of arcade greats. Galaxian may have entered this world as a clone, but its enduring legacy has proven that this long-running line deserves a crown of its own.